Abolish Grades

Abolish Grades

Grades serve two purposes: to motivate students and to assess their level of understanding. However, they are counterproductive in both realms. Grading incentivizes busywork, corrupts students' motivations, and proves unhelpful in assessing their understanding. If the purpose of education is to fill students' minds with true ideas and to shape them into clear-thinking, disciplined, and attentive adults, then the gradebook ought to be abolished.

Even without grades, most Stanford students would turn in their best work on useful assignments. Some would do so only because they are workaholics; they would be at a loss, for a moment, when they lose the reward for which they have been primed since childhood. Yet even they would be freed to hold themselves to internal standards, which are often higher than those required to earn an “A”. Most students naturally desire a challenge. Their curiosity and internal drive landed them at Stanford, and they do not need to be manipulated into learning. Grades, therefore, are not a matter of academic effort put forth, but of the nature of students' motives.

Busywork is a representative case of grades perverting the incentives of teachers and students alike. Regardless of the subject, professors must assign projects tasks to justify a grade in the course. Students, for their part, allot their time to assignments that promise the quick reward of a grade—a graded exercise journal from a swimming class, for instance—instead of that which unveils the real reward of a living idea. Absent this motivation misallocation, students would devote their attention and effort to their more meaningful—often, more difficult—work. As a result, professors would have to create assignments meaningful enough to support their own weight without the scaffolding of grade motivation. Incentives are powerful, and we ought not incentivize mediocrity.

Beyond distracting students down a bothersome rabbit trail of meaningless tasks, grades hollow out the very soul of education. “You draw them to what you draw them with,” my mother says, usually regarding flashy church events and immodest clothing. The saying is also true of education. A grade is not a carrot which students follow to the table of knowledge. Instead, grades become the focus of education, teaching students that obtaining knowledge is not a sufficient end in itself. And so we trot, like so many donkeys, after our root vegetables. For many students, what might be mistaken for academic discipline is in fact a slavery to the extrinsic demands of grades. Intrinsic discipline can only develop once that false scaffolding is torn down.

In addition to corrupting motives, grades prove unhelpful in assessing academic ability or growth. They rate a student's work against an average, not against the truth. I can write an essay full of academic jargon and politically correct platitudes, an essay which compares favorably to other students' work, an essay which earns an “A.” That essay would be unfaithful to the truth. I have earned an “A” on architecture drawings which were not my most careful, on physics problem sets that I did not fully understand, on stories which were not my most creative. Something is broken in the grading system.

Feedback on work ought to be in words, not letters, and it should be relative to a student's best work, not to the performance of the class. Stanford has the capacity to give this personalized feedback, even in its large lecture classes. In CS 106A, for instance, each student receives corrections on their problem sets during a mandatory, weekly meeting with their TA. Such meetings and written responses from professors are the type of assessments which facilitate academic growth. A mere letter, representing a crude comparison with other students, drives a capable student into complacency and a struggling student into hopelessness. 

But if Stanford were to abolish grades, how would employers and graduate schools distinguish between students? First, grades are not much help in that department already. Because of rampant grade inflation, a high letter grade does not set one student apart from another. Graduate schools and companies, therefore, already compare applicants by school reputation, standardized tests, extracurricular experience, and a slew of other factors. Regardless, Stanford should be far less concerned with students looking good than being good. Does it care to graduate students who can think, or a long baggage train of carrot-following burros?

Abolishing grades would, of course, also lower students' stress. Stress and challenge are two different things, and they need not be correlated. A student can accomplish far more in a challenge they choose than in one forced upon them. Academic anxiety impels students into schoolwork before they have a chance to choose it willingly, even joyfully. Most students hack away at school not out of hope for their futures or joy in their learning, but out of a vague fear of a disaster following on the heels of a bad grade. Working from this place of fear—or, for that matter, performing academically only to satisfy one's ego—yields results in the short term, but it kills real learning.

I do my best to pretend that grades do not exist, and to learn out of love, curiosity, and joy. It is a mind game, but I invite you, fellow students, to join in my make-believe. If we focus on learning, performance will come easily enough. But if we continue to make performance our end goal, it will scoop the soul out of learning. It is time to set grades aside.

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